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A Friend on the Freeway

Who would stop to help a stranger get back on the road?

winding freeway with blue sky overhead
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I cruised down the wide-open freeway in my red Chevy pickup and glanced at the dashboard clock. 5:30 AM. Only a few hours till I’d arrive in Ellsworth, Michigan, my hometown. After a weekend in Detroit visiting my fiancé’s family, it was time to get back to work. I had a plumbing job at 9:00, sharp. I stepped on the gas, picked up speed, and… Pop! That noise didn’t sound good.

My eyes darted to the rearview mirror. A black rubber strip had whipped out from underneath my truck and fallen to the road behind me, dancing in a long coil as it settled on the asphalt. The engine belt!

I shifted into neutral and pulled onto the shoulder. Without an engine belt, my truck’s battery would die in minutes. I was the only car on the road, and I didn’t have a cell phone to call for help. Now what?

I needed a miracle. Or someone like my dad, a top-notch mechanic back in Ellsworth. Everyone there knew Keith VanderArk as the kind of guy who’d give a stranger the shirt off his own back. If he drove past a waylaid traveler, he’d do everything he could to get them back on the road and wouldn’t ask for a cent in return. People like Dad were a rarity.

I’d been stranded a good hour when an 18-wheeler pulled up behind me. A big, hulking trucker stepped out. “Mind if I take a look?” He popped the hood, examined my engine. “My son has an auto garage a few miles away,” he said. “Hop in.”

Should I trust this guy? I glanced at the clock. If I wanted to make my appointment, I didn’t have a choice.

A minute later I was at the garage. His son had the exact belt my Chevy needed, and they even offered to install it, on the house. “Where you headed?” the trucker asked.

“Ellsworth,” I replied.

“I know a guy from there,” he said. “Once, my truck broke down along the freeway at 4 AM in a blizzard. I’d just started a new job. I thought that might be the end of it! Until a stranger stopped by, a mechanic. That guy saved my neck and wouldn’t take a cent.”

“Do you remember his name?” I asked.

“I sure do,” he said. “Keith VanderArk. Know him?”

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